"if collaboration leads to innovation then corporations — and the collected minds within them — could be the new avant-garde." - Ivan Valin
As unlikely as it seems, I find myself agreeing with this idea. I know that corporations are too often engines of profit at the expense of a common good. However, as collections of minds working for a shared purpose they are highly effective and full of potential.
It seems that individual gain is the motivating force that holds corporations together and tears them apart. What could take its place? Coercion, ideas, and altruism have their limits. Basic self-interest seems to be a constant. It may not be our highest calling, but we can count on it. In making use of self-interest to effectively address ecological problems from poverty to environmental degradation, architecture can play an important role.
Actually, this calls for an explanation of what I mean by architecture. I don't see it as a rarefied pursuit, distinguished from building and design by its rigor, as Peter Eisenman proclaims in a recent interview. Discussions at mammoth, Free Association Design, faslanyc, dpr-barcelona, Places, HTC Experiments, Quiet Babylon, and BLDGBLOG are expanding the field of architectural thinking to include ecological processes, activism, technology, and even corporate systems.There is a compelling body of theory and research that supports many of these ideas. Mustafa Dikeç, Matthew Gandy, Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, Eric Swyngedouw, Sarah Whatmore, and Mark Whitehead have inspired me with new ways of understanding the role of politics in ecological change, which is closely linked with architecture.
At its best, architecture is collaborative design, planning, and implementation of promising ideas. By collaborative, I don't mean that individual architects should be marginalized in favor of an unwieldy group-think. It's more about people (and others) working together, using their talents in ways that are best for them, communicating effectively, and bringing about well-conceived, democratically formulated plans. It involves the design of self-improving systems on a variety of levels, from ecological processes to the infrastructure, organizations, technology, events and other elements of which they're composed.
Architecture as a term seems as obsolete as monarchy. How many architects can honestly call themselves master builders? Doesn't the client usually make the final call? And given the amount of capital needed to realize most projects, clients tend to be wealthy and powerful. Maybe large-scale architecture has always been controlled by these kinds of patrons, but hopefully that can change. On a side note, urbanism seems equally problematic. Why should the urban be such a rallying point? The -ism implies a valuation of cities over other places, which seems limited in scope when considering global problems. It brings up unnecessary associations with fascism, racism, and sexism, especially in light of the overwhelming amount of attention and resources that metropolitan areas already attract.
Expanding the field of architecture (or design, because until someone makes a convincing argument for the singularity of architecture as we know it, I'm not sure why it isn't a form of design), requires an engagement with the processes of implementation if it is to become more than fantasy. This would include humans and non-humans working together in well-coordinated ways, guiding self-interest toward a common good. It shouldn't be limited to the urban.
For coordinated action at a global scale, it's hard to imagine a more effective structure than the cooperation. What if it were applied toward solving ecological problems? Most of today's corporations haven't come close to reaching this potential. If they do, as long as great ideas aren't lost in bureaucracy, corporations really could become a worthwhile avant-guarde.
Credits: Photo of La Paz, Bolivia from Lottelies.